Thursday, April 18, 2019

Finally visiting San Marcos Growers in Santa Barbara

The 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara was a two-day extravaganza the likes of which I probably won't see again for a while. A personal highlight was breakfast at San Marcos Growers, a wholesale nursery specializing in “plants appropriate to California's mediterranean climate, including many California native plants, as well as vines, trees, shrubs, ferns, perennials, succulents, ornamental grasses and grass-like plants from other areas around the world.” [1]

San Marcos Growers isn't open to the public, but their plants are carried by retail nurseries across California and in the Pacific Northwest. Over the years, I've bought many of their plants at the Ruth Bancroft Garden nursery and Peacock Horticultural Nursery. More recently, I've been able to get SMG plants via a friend so I've been able to indulge.

San Marcos Growers is named after San Marcos Road, the location of the nursery. For a long while I was confused because there's also a town named San Marcos, but it's much further south in San Diego County.

The nursery was started in 1979 by retired businessman Jim Hodges and City of Santa Barbara arborist David Gress on a 6-acre lot. Over time, adjoining properties were purchased, and today SMG has 21 acres in production, with 2 additional acres of cutting and demonstration gardens.

Massive agave flower stalk at San Macros Growers

To many of us, San Marcos Growers is synonymous with Randy Baldwin. He was hired in 1981 as production manager, became general manager in 1990, and is part owner of the company today. Arguably one of the biggest stars in the plant world in California. Randy has been a pioneer in the popularization of plants appropriate for our Mediterranean climate, including many South African and Australian plants that hadn't been seen in California gardens before. This interview with Randy Baldwin, which was posted on the State of California's CA GROWN blog on February 17, 2017, is a great introduction to what Randy does and what his interests are. It's a fast and informative read, and I highly recommend it.

Along with everything else, Randy also writes the descriptions for the plant database on the SMG web site. It's usually the first resource I go when I try to find out more about a specific plant. In addition to the specs you expect in a plant description, Randy gives valuable hardiness information and, with hybrids and cultivars, often sheds light on the plant's origin. Without the SMG database, I'd be lost, and that's no lie.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Spikes in the spring: Ruth Bancroft Garden in April 2019

The day before Loree “Danger Garden” Bohl and I set out for the 2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara, we visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek. I hadn't been there in almost a year, and I was eager to see all the recent changes. I needn't have worried—the Visitor Center is in the final stretch of completion, the nursery is well-stocked and once again focused on plants instead of home decor, and the garden itself is looking splendid thanks to the leadership and vision of curator Brian Kemble and assistant curator Walker Young.

Loree for scale in front of the massive Agave salmiana 'Butterfingers' near the entrance

The most visible change is the Visitor and Education Center right at the entrance:


The Visitor Center is scheduled to open in June 2019. Click here for more information.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

2019 Bromeliad Summit in Santa Barbara

Last weekend was very special. Loree "Danger Garden" Bohl came down from Portland, OR on Thursday for four action- and fun-packed days. We hung out in Davis and visited the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which would have been a treat in and of itself. But there was a lot more in store: We went on a road trip to Santa Barbara for the 2019 Bromeliad Summit organized by Jeff Chemnick of Aloes in Wonderland. Just imagine two spiky-plant nerds joining 60+ like-minded folks for a jam-packed weekend of presentations and visits to public and private gardens and even an air plant nursery!

The opening reception for the Bromeliad Summit was held at Aloes in Wonderland, Jeff Chemnick's 5-acre garden paradise in the Santa Barbara hills. Yes, it's a private garden, but it's an also a nursery where (almost) everything you see is for sale. A shovel is provided free of charge, but backhoe or crane use is extra. I'm not kidding about the later—you'll see what I mean in my upcoming post about Aloes in Wonderland.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Abkhazi Garden: return to the Garden that Love Built

When plant lovers think of Victoria, it's invariably Butchart Gardens that comes to mind. Very few horticultural institutions have achieved the kind of superstardom that Butchart Gardens has enjoyed for 70+ years. And it is a floral spectacle—one that rivals Disneyland in its pursuit of perfection. An unforgettable experience for many, but too impersonal, aseptic and artificial for others,

My favorite garden in Victoria is the opposite: intimate, personal and meaningful. Abkhazi Garden has heart and it has history. A labor of love created over a span of 40 years by a British expatriate who had grown up as a well-to-do socialite in Shanghai and the Prince of Abkhazia, forced to flee his homeland because of the Russian Revolution. The story of Peggy and Nicholas Abkhazi reads like a sprawling novel of revolution, war, imprisonment, love lost and finally found again. See my 2016 post for the short version.

Located in the leafy beachside suburb of Oak Bay, the Abkhazi Garden is now managed by The Land Conservancy and is open to the public year round (7 days a week in the summer, Wednesday through Sunday the rest of the year). At 1 acre, it's large enough to accommodate a variety of trees and shrubs without appearing crammed and yet compact enough to retain its private character instead of feeling like a public park.

When I first visited on April 10, 2016, the garden was a glorious riot of color. This year, spring is late (Victoria was under a blanket of snow just a month ago) and not a lot of shrubs were in bloom. Overall, the garden looked more like in late winter than spring. But it has such a solid backbone, it's beautiful even at the least photogenic time of year.

The garden isn't the only attraction. The Abkhazi's modest home is now a teahouse. Located on top of a rock outcropping at the highest point on the property, it features not only a beautiful view but also great food. We had Elevenses, a selection of savory and sweet nibbles served with your choice of tea. I felt very civilized, sitting on the terrace sipping tea out of china once owned by the Abkhazis.

Teahouse, originally the home of the Abkhazis

Friday, March 29, 2019

Visiting Victoria plant geek Nat Marcano at C&C Growers

I've known Victoria, BC plant geek Nat Marcano for many years. His blog, Stupid Garden Plants, is not only educational, but also wickedly entertaining. Nat has been too busy to post new content in a while (you know, work, life, etc.), but you can still catch up on all his previous posts. Fortunately, plant knowledge doesn't go out of date.

Yesterday I caught up with Nat at his place of work, C&C Growers in the Blenkinsop Valley, a tranquil and surprisingly rural area at the foot of Mt Douglas. As it turned out, it was only 7-minute drive from the Airbnb where we're staying! C&C is one of the largest wholesale growers of annuals and perennials on Vancouver Island, supplying retail outlets all over the island as well as on the lower mainland (including the great Vancouver area). The plants C&C produces may not be all that exciting to hard-core plant nerds, but they're the mainstay of many a garden: petunias, violas, begonias, sweet peas, bidens, fuchsias, lavender, and so on.

Nat has been with C&C for 12 years and has made his way up the ladder to a position where he is able to pursue his own projects in addition to his regular work. He is Mr Succulent, in charge of the hardy and non-hardy succulents C&C sells. He also propagates rarer succulents available only in small quantities (such as the seed-grown Aloe polyphylla you see below).

Nat is the kind of person you feel you've known forever

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Late March, Victoria, British Columbia: it's spring, I guess?

It's spring break for daughter #2 (last year of high school) so we're visiting daughter #1 in Victoria, British Columbia. This is one of the truly sublime spots on the west coast of North America, so it's not a hardship.

Late March is the middle of spring according to my internal clock. Not so in Victoria. While it's in Canada's banana belt (zone 8b), this winter brought far more snow than usual, and plants are slower to wake up and get going. In a "normal" year (whatever that means these days) I would have expected the rhododendrons to be in full bloom; this year they're just starting.

I'm pretty good at going with the flow, so I quickly let go of the mental images I'd come with and am simply enjoying what there is to see. Fortunately, I brought a hoodie that's warm enough to keep me comfy. But I still shiver every time I see a particularly hardy local in shorts and T-shirt when it's in the upper 40s (9 or 10°C).

This post is a collection of photos from the first three days of our visit. We made it to Butchart Gardens on Monday, and I'll have a separate post about that (this time it was less in-your-face-color, more backbone structure and texture).

Our first plant-related stop was at Finnerty Gardens on the campus of the University of Victoria. Check out this post from early April 2016; no such floral splendor this time, at least not yet. But there were enough early-blooming rhododendrons to make me happy.

Rhododendron 'Cindy Louise'

Friday, March 22, 2019

Taft Gardens in Ojai, California: from A(loe) to X(anthorrhoea)

Over time, some gardens achieve near mythic status. They're talked about in a hushed voice, like a secret only a select few are privy to. Sometimes there's a hint of uncertainty, as if the speaker isn't really sure that the garden even exists. This reputation seems to be directly related to how (in)accessible it is. Gardens that are virtually impossible to get into are the most likely to become the stuff of legends.

Out of all the gardens I've visited, the Taft Gardens fit into this category the best although they're not impossible to get into, as this post proves.

The Taft Gardens are located in a bucolic undeveloped part of Southern California, outside the town of Ojai southeast of Santa Barbara. The project was started in the late-1980s by developer John Taft and his wife Melody on their 265-acre property in the foothills of the Topatopa Mountains near Lake Casitas. Since the climate is very similar to what you find at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the initial idea had been to grow South African proteas. This was soon expanded to include a wider range of plants from South Africa's Cape Province, especially aloes, as well as proteacea from Australia.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Rusted “metal” containers on the cheap

I greatly admire creative minds like Loree Bohl of The Danger Garden or Annette Gutierrez and Mary Gray of Potted. It seems so effortless for them to come up with original ideas for garden containers. Loree has created dish planters out of birdfeeder tops and has upcycled metal odds and ends in a variety of ways, and Anette and Mary have written an entire book on the subject.

My ambitions are decidedly more pedestrian, but that doesn't take away from the excitement I feel when I complete a project, even a modest one.

Over the last few years we've been adding Corten steel containers to the front yard to introduce some much-needed vertical elements and gain planting height. I love the rich look of rust that weathering steel like Corten develops over time, but metal planters are pricy. I've finally found an alternative that has much of the same look with just a fraction of the price tag.

Here is an example I did last fall:


Ground-level view:


Friday, March 15, 2019

Visiting Jo O'Connell, plant maven from down under

As you may remember, I went on a quick road trip to Southern California right after Thanksgiving. One of the stops I was most looking forward to was Australian Native Plants nursery in Casitas Springs just outside of Ventura.

Few people in the U.S. know more about plants from down under than Australia-born horticulturist Jo O'Connell. She started the nursery in the early 1990s with her American husband Byron Cox and, through passion, dedication and perseverance, has developed it into a leading resource for plant material from the southern hemisphere. Much of the plants Jo and Byron offer are propagated by themselves, either from their own stock or from seeds imported from Australia. Literally, they are often the only source for a particular plant in the entire U.S. As you can see here, their plant list is truly impressive.

Jo O'Connell and Australian cattle dog Wallaby who guards the plants in the nursery

Jo O'Connell's personal story reads like a movie script—if Hollywood made movies about plant people, that is.